Crops for Cranes program works with Moffat County farmers to benefit sandhill cranes
CRAIG — Most of the time, Doyle Moon grows alfalfa hay to feed cattle and sheep, but at the end of summer, a different animal will be feeding on Moon’s grain: squawking sandhill cranes.
Moon participates in Crops for Cranes, a cost-share program coordinated by Colorado Crane Conservation Coalition.
“One of the trends that has been happening over the last 25, 30 years is that there has been a decrease in production of grain crops, and the cranes rely on the waste of those grain crops to fatten up before they head south,” said Nancy Merrill, president of Colorado Crane Conservation Coalition.
To help those cranes “fatten up,” the coalition pays producers to grow grain for the birds, either by purchasing about 10 to 15 acres of grain crops that a farmer is already producing or entering cost-share agreements to put land into production for cranes, as was the case for Moon.
“It was just some vacant land that didn’t have any kind of purpose,” Moon said. “I had it in my mind that I would do something with that ground, but this really just made it all come together, and we’re getting some use out of it now.”
The cranes also bring in business at his parents’ wool mill and shop, Yampa Valley Fiberworks. Each year, CCCC hosts the Yampa Valley Crane Festival in late August. As part of the festival, birders can participate in tours of some of the farms and ranches where the cranes spend time before they continue migrating south.
His parents, Lewis and Lorrae Moon, set up a viewing station with a bench nearby for festival goers to come see the cranes. People come for the cranes, but some stay for a tour of the fiber mill and to stroll through the shop.
Crops for Cranes began in 2015. Moon began participating last year, and unfortunately, he saw a crop failure on the ground. In a dry year, very little grew out of the land freshly broken from sagebrush. Still, even in a bad year, the Moon family had about four to six breeding pairs raise chicks on their land, and one night during the migration, the Moons had what Doyle called a “whole pile” of cranes – about 30 or 40. He’s hoping for a better year this year.
“They’ve always just been around, and they’re darn sure loud,” he said. “You just notice them.”
Sandhill cranes return to the Yampa Valley in early March from their wintering grounds in the Southern United States and California. In the summer, they breed in the northern U.S. and Canada. During this time, they break off in family groups.
Cranes mate for life, and a mating pair typically has one or two chicks during a season, Merrill said. In August, with the young old enough to forage and fly, the family groups reconvene into a large flock, like Moon’s “pile” of cranes. This is when the cranes fatten up on the grains left behind after the harvest.
The coalition is interested in expanding the program, though Merrill said the organization would prefer to work in areas where the cranes are already visiting, as it can take years to establish a new area the cranes will use. She said ideal areas for the project are ranches where cranes have been spotted before or have been known to forage.
“They’re definitely creatures of habit, and they tend to go back to where they’ve been before,” she said. “Getting them to come to a new place takes awhile.”
Interested farmers and ranchers can learn how to get involved in the program by visiting coloradocranes.org, or contacting CCCC at 970-276-1933 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For Doyle Moon, participating in Crops for Cranes and the Yampa Valley Crane Festival helps build a stronger community.
“You’ve got to keep doing these little projects to keep our little community in this valley rolling,” he said.